Jane L. S. Davidson
Heritage Preservation Coordinator, Chester County PA Parks & Recreation Department
Jane L. S. Davidson, historian, preservationist, genealogist, author and artist received her degree from Millersville University in English, Library Science and Social Studies. After graduation she established school libraries at Quarryville and Garnet Valley High Schools in Delaware County before moving to Downingtown in 1965. Thereafter she began teaching local history research and genealogy in workshops, continuing education programs and at West Chester University. She was appointed to the Downingtown Historic Commission in 1975 and the following year wrote and illustrated a book entitled “Christian Schmucker, a Colonial Pennsylvania Farmer.” She served as historian and preservationist for the Borough of Downingtown from 1977 to 1980 and during this period wrote a book entitled “A History of Downingtown.” In 1982 Ms. Davidson was appointed County Historic Preservation Officer, a position she held for over 10 years, and created numerous municipal Historic Commissions and two National Historic Districts. In 1992, President George Bush appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for a two-year term. Currently Ms. Davidson is Heritage Preservation Coordinator in the Chester County Parks and Recreation Department and continues to be active in a number of local, state and federal organizations.
When William Penn established the Philadelphia area in 1682 he created three counties, Philadelphia, Chester and Bucks. Chester County had no defined western border but was generally considered to extend west to the Susquehanna River. The first land owners were English, Irish Quakers, Welsh and Swiss German immigrants followed by Scots and Scots-Irish. Many of the English landowners never took possession of their property and remained in England. Even by 1715 movement to and from the area was difficult because the only cartway (road) did not extend beyond the east bank of the Brandywine near Downingtown.
The first settlers in the current Chester County occupied farms in the Great Valley that extends west from Paoli to Coatesville. This valley is one to three miles wide and supported by a geologic lode of limestone 600 to 800 feet in depth. Other areas that were settled by early immigrants were the Skuylkill River valley and the piedmont area south of the Great Valley. The first immigrant settlers followed one of two routes into the area. One route was west along the Great Valley (now U.S. Route 30) and the other was north along the Skuylkill River. Settlers in the Great Valley area were English, Irish Quakers and Welsh, while the northern settlers were mostly Swiss and Swiss-German. Later in 1725 Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants entered the region at New Castle and moved inward along the Nanticoke Indian path. These people settled in the Nottingham area, the piedmont south of the Great Valley.
Early houses and barns in western Chester County area have a characteristic style, which the author recently demonstrated was derived from similar structures in western Scotland and the Hebrides. A book found while exploring the Isle of Skye describes how these houses and barns were constructed and how the homes were furnished in Scotland. Very similar structures were erected in Chester County as late as 1815.
Many of the early settlers were squatters. They simply located tracts of vacant land, built a farmhouse and barn and cleared a small area on which to produce food. As they prospered additional land was cleared, the houses were improved and stone barns supplanted log barns. Some of these structures still exist throughout the region.
Following an Indian massacre, Swiss and Swiss-German settlers from the Skuylkill River valley also moved into Great Valley and further south. These people brought with them their European knowledge about clearing land, as well as home and barn construction. Evidence of their European culture may be seen in some of the old farm structures.
Farmers and their families had to work very hard to make farming profitable. Land was commonly cleared of trees at the rate of only an acre per year. Clearing implied that the trees were cut down but the stumps remained thus only a fraction of the cleared area was suitable for crop production. Tree stumps even remained in many of the cartways or roads. As late as the Civil War, a local leader complained that there were too many stumps in the roadway from Philadelphia to Lancaster. During the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, the dual responsibility of raising children and producing crops was thrust upon women. Each of these wars had a devastating effect upon the local economy because much of the food produced in the region was diverted to the armies. At other times there were huge crop losses due to invasions of locusts or to unfavorable weather conditions. The British embargo at the time of the War of 1812 and the Panic of 1837 also affected the area economy adversely. Many years passed before the original settlers were able to purchase their farms from the Pennsylvania Province. Some records indicate that great grandchildren of the original settlers made the final payments.
The first county agricultural society was formed in 1826, more that 40 years after the organization of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. At about this time Chester County farmers started to experiment with crop and animal production techniques and a number of patents were issued for mechanical devices marking the first evidence of the Industrial Revolution in the county. By 1880 Chester County was an important part of the breadbasket serving the northeastern states. There were 264 gristmills in the county. Today there are the remains of only about 16 gristmills because grain production ultimately moved to the Mid-west. The decline in grain production started at the time of the Civil War when railroads became available in local communities for moving agricultural products to large markets. Chester County agriculture gradually shifted from grain to dairy farms and dairy products, like cream and cheese, were shipped to Philadelphia, Lancaster and Wilmington markets by farmer co-operatives. About this time an ice industry was formed to harvest and store ice from the Brandywine to supply local markets. Ice was even shipped successfully by water to Jamaica.
Following the two World Wars in the twentieth century small farmers have struggled to make a satisfactory living in Chester County. This struggle continues today but now the struggle includes urban development. Farms have been lost to housing and commercial development at a very rapid rate.
Preservation of Chester County’s agricultural heritage has been the goal of several organizations within the area. These efforts have included publication of books and articles about agriculture, creation of farms to demonstrate traditional crop and animal production practices and preservation of examples of the very early farmhouses and barns. These efforts have met with substantial success due to local support. It is believed that if these programs can be continued a record of Chester County’s agricultural heritage will be preserved for all future generations to enjoy.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.